Leader of the Pack

Follow this advice to become the kind of take-charge owner your retriever deserves

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Photo © DougSteinke.com

By Gary Koehler

As pack animals, dogs thrive when they understand their place in the social hierarchy. They have also evolved to pay close attention to people, and to take their cues from our behavior. Your retriever is genetically hardwired to want to please you, but he can't read your mind. It's up to you to show the dog exactly what you expect of him. 

What this means is that you can't be wishy-washy when training a young retriever. You have to take charge and be the pack leader. Fortunately, your puppy will be inclined to recognize you as the boss. After all, he looks to you for all his daily needs. You let him out of his crate, feed him, take him outside, and provide training and affection. In the process of all this nurturing and bonding, your puppy is learning to trust you. It's your job to build on that trust.

Far too many retriever owners are hesitant to correct their dogs. Many of these folks operate under the false assumption that if they demand respect and recognition, their dog will not like them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Retrievers come with all sorts of personalities, from the bold and sassy to the shy and demure. But all dogs need structure in their lives in order to reach their full potential. 

This is not to say that you should be heavy-handed in your training techniques. Positive reinforcement tends to work better than compulsion. Encourage good behaviors and discourage bad ones, and your retriever will soon catch on. Be consistent and clear regarding the rules. Avoid sending mixed signals. For example, if you don't want your dog to jump on you when you come home, don't encourage that behavior by allowing it; nip it in the bud. Canines are creatures of habit. If you allow them to do something once, they'll take that as an open invitation to do it all the time. 

In your alpha role, you should be calm, assertive, and confident. Your retriever will read your mood by observing your body language, eye contact, and tone of voice. It is crucial that he understands exactly what is expected when given a command. Make sure your dog masters basic obedience before you move on to more complex lessons.  

Following are six simple exercises that will help you establish yourself as pack leader.


[1] Make your retriever wait for his food. 

Instruct the dog to sit and stay while you fill the bowl. Then wait a minute longer before giving him permission to eat. If the dog fails to sit and stay, take the food away and try again later. Retrievers love to eat. Yours should catch on to this regimented program quickly. 

[2] Go first. 

When you are walking through a doorway or gate, you should always go first, ahead of your dog. You are the leader. He is the follower. This simply helps reinforce your dominance.

[3] Set boundaries. 

If given the opportunity, your retriever would probably love to share your bed, but that's not a good idea for a variety of reasons. Your dog should have his own place to sleep, whether in a crate, on a dog bed, or on the floor. Setting clear boundaries can make living together easier for pets and their owners. 

[4] Enforce heel. 

When walking your dog, don't allow him to drag you down the street. Teach him to heel and keep him at your side. This will help instill the kind of discipline and steadiness he'll need in the duck blind.

[5] Respond quickly. 

When your retriever misbehaves, react immediately in a firm voice. Do not wait 10 minutes to correct him. If you allow too much time to lapse, the dog won't understand why he's being reprimanded. 

[6] Be fair. 

Do not let anger rule the moment. Maintaining your composure is the best way to retain your dog's trust. Praise your retriever when he does well. Success, along with positive reinforcement, breeds confidence.